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Haitian diaspora lobbies for fair immigration

Miami Times Article

Dozens of Haitian migrants are expected to return home by Friday on a series of expulsion flights scheduled for this week.

The deportations come days after the Biden administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced an end to Title 42, a controversial public health policy that has led to mass expulsions of individuals arriving from a country where a communicable disease exists.

In place since March 2020, the policy afforded border patrol agents the ability to quickly expel migrants attempting to enter the U.S. A CDC order issued last Friday states that Title 42 will officially be rescinded on May 23.

“We are encouraged by [the] news of the possible rescinding of Title 42 but we know that this is not the end of our fight,” said Marleine Bastien, Haitian activist and executive director of Family Action Network Movement (FANM). “Because since September 2021, the Biden administration has deported over 20,000 Haitian refugees…[they] have deported more refugees to Haiti than the past four administrations…Let that sink [in].”

Immigration rights groups and South Florida’s Haitian diaspora, who advocated for the policy’s removal, say they are relieved but far from satisfied with the rate at which government officials are responding to what they are calling a humanitarian crisis.

The Department of Homeland Security estimated an average of 7,100 migrants arriving to the U.S. daily compared to a 5,900 daily average just two months ago, according to the Associated Press.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says an end to Title 42 would cause that number to skyrocket, calling the move a ‘dereliction of duty.’ Already, three GOP states have turned to lawsuits to fight the decision, citing an increase in migrant population as a detrimental force to government resources.

“We don’t have time to wait,” said Santcha Etienne, a community organizer at Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI). “Why wait until May when you have the power to do it now?”

Political instability, gang violence, and natural disasters continue to draw Haitian migrants out of Haiti, pushing them to make the life-threatening journey to the U.S. by boat or other means. Advocates and journalists have been killed in recent weeks while women and girls are forced to sleep in shifts to ward off rapists after a five-year-old girl was assaulted, according to Bastien.

White House communications director Kate Bedingfield told reporters last week that the White House deferred to CDC on the timeline since the policy is a public health directive and not an immigration measure. Contingency plans are being discussed to address surges in migration.

Bedingfield clarified that an end to Title 42 would not mean migrants would automatically be allowed to remain in the U.S. but instead, would not be promptly removed because of a public health concern.

“To be clear, most individuals who crossed the border without legal authorization will be promptly placed into removal proceedings,” she said. “And if they are unable to establish a legal basis to remain in the [U.S.] they’ll be expeditiously removed … economic need and flight from generalized violence is not a basis for asylum, but rather asylum is for those with a well-founded fear of persecution on a protected ground.”

Etienne, who migrated to the U.S. 19 years ago, said there’s too much at stake for the innocent people in Haiti. She understands too well the level of fear that could lead someone to risk their lives in search of safety.

Her uncle, a Petit-Goâve commissioner and family man, was kidnapped and held for ransom last May. More than 800 kidnappings were reported that same year as some citizens resorted to seeking ransom money as a source of income.

“The ask was one million [U.S.] dollars. When they asked for that money, we were like ‘where are we going to find that?’” Etienne told The Miami Times. “So they lowered it to $200,000. We went everywhere looking for money. Finally, they released him after 14 days.”

He had to be hospitalized for a broken leg and burns sustained at the hands of kidnappers, she revealed.

“The police themselves have been victimized by the gang members,” Etienne added, explaining why her family couldn’t go to the police. “The worst thing is that after some of them are killed, the families can’t get the bodies to bury them … It will take all of us Haitian people to come together to beat this cruelty.”

Joining FANM at a rally on Friday outside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building, she pleaded with President Joe Biden to remember a campaign promise for immigration reform and demanded fair treatment of Black and brown migrants.

“All of these communities were given promises and it’s taken them a year and some change to actually come out and say that they’re going to stop it,” said Paula Muñoz,, director of campaign organization for Florida Immigrant Coalition. “And now you’re telling us it’s going to take you until May? We need solutions right now because families are suffering.”

Munoz, who sought asylum with relatives at seven years old, said government officials are cherry-picking migrant communities allowed to seek refuge. Her organization is calling for Temporary Protected Status expansion, comprehensive immigration reform, and humanitarian parole policies.

“If my family wouldn’t have actually gotten asylum, we might have been dead,” she said, asking for the same opportunity to be extended to all migrants arriving at the U.S. border now.

“We’ve done an incredible job in helping [Ukraine], with billions in dollars of support. Haiti is right here at our doorstep,” said Dale Holness, former Broward County mayor and candidate for Florida’s 20th congressional district. “The gangs now believe that they can run the country. So though it's not a foreign force occupying, the gangs are occupying. A travel advisory says don’t go to Haiti, yet, we are returning people who are fleeing back to Haiti, does that make any sense?”

Holness, who spoke at the rally, said he plans to stand in solidarity with the diaspora and suggested that the U.S. provide one billion dollars in aid to Haiti over the course of 10 years.

“Our work doesn't end with ending Title 42 because Haiti is in no shape to receive deportees. We must continue to fight to haul all deportations to Haiti,” said Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who called a press conference on Thursday when news of the White House considering Title 42’s removal broke.

Recalling a decades-long fight for Haitian migrants alongside the late U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, Wilson said the recent influx in migration is the result of not addressing root problems in Haiti.

“I will keep fighting to ensure that Haitian asylum seekers’ claims are processed in a timely manner, treated humanely while being detained, and released as quickly as possible to family, friends, and sponsors,” she said, encouraging those with the means to support incoming migrants to do so.

Wilson says South Florida should prepare to receive a wave of migrants that may take advantage of Title 42’s end, while also requesting that the Biden administration make a conscious effort to hire Haitian-Creole-speaking border patrol agents to be among the 300 new recruits expected to be brought on soon.

“It is our [belief] that the Biden administration may use [the time between now and Title 42’s rescission]  to deport as many people as possible to make a lesson out of our people,” said Bastien, cautioning migrants who may try to take advantage of the change in policy. “Because historically, our brothers and sisters have been used by both Republican and Democratic administrations as scapegoats.”

“We’re not encouraging anyone to come over the border. We’re not encouraging anyone to leave and risk their lives,” said Clarel Cyriaque, an asylum law attorney in Miami. “What we are acknowledging, however, is that people are not leaving because they want to. People are leaving because they are desperate. They have no other choice.”

The National Haitian American Elected Officials Network (NHAEON), an organization serving as the unofficial mouthpiece of the diaspora, are calling for dialogue with the administration.

“The Biden administration is adamant about not getting involved,” said Mary Estime-Irvin, a North Miami councilwoman and vice-chair of NHAEON, asking for U.S. assistance in securing the country. “There’s got to be security there. We don’t have a government on any level, [no] supreme court, prime minister [or] president. So this is a subject that I’m pushing for and hoping the administration changes its mind.”

Though the diaspora has stood in firm opposition to U.S. occupation and long-term military interference, Estime-Irvin said U.S. military or security presence for a period of six months to a year could be a step in the right direction. The team, she said, could help train Haiti’s national police force while officials in the island nation come up with solutions to address its security issues.

“I am hopeful,” she added. “But I have to be honest, I started to doubt [them] but I believe that the administration is listening to our cry. I still believe that he [Biden] is working too slow, though.”